SHARE
COPY LINK

LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Swedish word of the day: en gubbe

Our latest word of the day is a term that can describe old and young men and boys, but you'll have to be careful how you use it. The meaning changes completely depending on the tone.

Swedish word of the day: en gubbe
Be careful how and when you use this word. Image: nito103/Depositphotos

En gubbe is a Swedish noun most often used to refer to a male person, and it can be affectionate or derogatory depending on the context.

When talking to your friends about your grandfather, for example, you might refer to him as en gubbe; it's an endearing way of saying “old man”. But it can also be used for men and boys of all ages, particularly young children, who be affectionately called a “lille gubbe” (roughly “little fellow”).

However, it can also be an insult, particularly if used about a man you don't know, or in a negative tone. If you really want to insult someone, it can be coupled with adjectives such as “grinig gubbe” (grumpy old man) or “ful gubbe” (literally 'ugly man' but usually used to mean 'dirty old man' or 'letch').

A good example of how the meaning can change is when Swedish-speaking women use it to refer to their husbands. When said in an affectionate context, “min gubbe” is a colloquial way of saying “my husband”, similar to the British “my man” or “my bloke”, and usually no offence would be intended at all. However, it can also be used to criticize men for letting themselves go: one online list titled 'Signs your man has become a 'gubbe'' lists criteria such as wearing old, worn out underwear, allowing nose and ear hair to grow, preferring to stay at home than go out, and growing grumpy.

So think twice about your tone before you call somebody a gubbe – it can come off harsher than intended and is almost never appropriate if you aren't close with the subject. There's also a female equivalent, en gumma, used mostly to describe older women which has the same ambiguity so can be either affectionate or insulting.

Swedish-learners might be wondering if there's any link to the word for strawberry: en jordgubbe. 'Gubbe' is also a Swedish dialect word to refer to a small lump, and 'jord' means 'earth' in the sense of soil, so a strawberry is quite simply “a small lump that grows in the earth”. Most linguists believe that this dialect word was the origin of 'en gubbe' meaning man, probably first used to refer to small children. Over time, it's likely that it started being used more widely to men of all ages, but it helps explain the sometimes negative connotations.

One final form of 'gubbe' to watch out for: in Swedish slang, 'en gubbe' also means 'a gram' of drugs. 

Examples

Min man har blivit en tråkig gubbe

My husband has become a boring old man

Jag gick till teatern med min gubbe

I went to the theatre with my husband

Do you have a favourite Swedish word you'd like to nominate for our word of the day series? Get in touch by email or if you are a Member of The Local, log in to comment below.

 

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members

SWEDISH WORD OF THE DAY

​​Swedish word of the day: fisförnäm

Today’s word is an expression Swedes use when other people think a little too highly of themselves. 

​​Swedish word of the day: fisförnäm

Fisförnäm is a composition of the two words fis, meaning ‘fart’, primarily one with a hissing sound, and förnäm, which means ‘noble, distinguished’. The combination is a slight slur for someone who is ‘stuck up, cocky, or thinks themselves better than others’ but who in actuality is not better at all. Perhaps somewhat comparable to the American expression of ​​’thinking the sun shines out of one’s own arse’ or simply ‘self-important’.

The late linguistics professor Jan Strid once explained fisförnäm on Swedish radio. While doing so he explained that the reason that fis refers to hissing farts is because it most likely has the original meaning of ‘blowing’. Which explains the word askfis, ‘ash fart’, meaning the youngest child which does nothing but sit by the fire blowing into the ashes and getting them all over the face. Then there is the bärfis, the ‘berry fart’, the insect commonly known in English as either shield bug or stink bug. There the word obviously refers to the bad smell produced by the bug. 

The late great professor then went on to explain how fisförnäm has a sibling in struntförnäm which means the same thing. Strunt, which in Swedish means ‘nonsense’, comes from German with the original meaning of ‘dung’, ‘dirt’ or ‘filth’. So struntförnäm in a way means ‘filth noble’ and by extension fisförnäm has the same original meaning: someone who says they are great, but they are really not better at all.

And that is a word that in a way is quintessentially Swedish. Why? Because of Jantelagen

Many of you are surely already familiar with the Law of Jante, but for those of you who are not, Jantelagen, first formalized in a satirical novel by Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose, is a set of rules or attitudes that many Swedes, Norwegians and Danes supposedly espouse. You might enjoy having a look at celebrated Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård explaining it on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Fisförnäm has been found in print as far back as 1954, some 21 years after the publication of Sandemose’s book A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks (En flyktning krysser sitt spor), in 1933. So it is younger than the formalization of the Law of Jante, but there is probably no connection between the two besides the societal norms both are expressions of. And though the 10 rules of the so called Law of Jante were first expressed in the aforementioned book, the attitudes are much older. 

To think yourself better than others is still somewhat frowned upon in Sweden, even if it is true. If you are familiar with Swedish football history you might have seen this in the Swedish public’s reaction to Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s rise to stardom. Some Swedes just could not stand his boisterous attitude, some still can not. But of course, fisförnäm is not applicable to Zlatan, since he is arguably the best Swedish footballer of all time. 

Fisförnäm is an insult, but not a bad one, and might even be used a bit jokingly. You could perhaps try to use it when someone does not want to join an activity that is a bit ridiculous. For reference (and a laugh) you might have a look at when famed Swedish show host Stina Dabrowski asked Margaret Thatcher to do a little skip in place on her show.

Example sentences:

Sluta var så fisförnäm nu, du kan väl va med?

Stop being so self-important, why not join in?

Nä, jag orkar inte följa med dit, de är alla så fisförnäma.

Oh no, I’d rather not go there, they are all so unduly haughty. 

Villa, Volvo, Vovve: The Local’s Word Guide to Swedish Life, written by The Local’s journalists, is now available to order. Head to lysforlag.com/vvv to read more about it. It is also possible to buy your copy from Amazon USAmazon UKBokus or Adlibris.

SHOW COMMENTS